"Like poets who make clever and sophisticated use of sounds in English, ASL makes clever use of movement," he said. "Sign language also lends itself to dance and movement in obvious ways that a spoken language can't."
Martha Sheridan, a social worker at Gallaudet University, became deaf at age 3. Though she began ballet in kindergarten, her parents eventually stopped her lessons.
"Growing up in hearing schools was no easy matter," wrote Sheridan in an e-mail. "When my parents learned that I was deaf and saw that I was missing out on important communication in dance classes, they thought perhaps it wasn't the most fitting activity for me."
But Sheridan eventually joined a high school dance team.
"While I had difficulty with the day-to-day communication in the classroom and in social interactions, dance provided me with a place to fit in, to stand out and to contribute to my school," she said. "It gave me a sense of community, a sense of belonging and a way to communicate."
Sheridan did so well that in her junior year she was chosen from among Ohio high school dance team members for the top performance award. "It was the highlight of my high school years and I can't begin to tell you how much dance did for me," she said.
Later, she joined the Gallaudet Dance Company and toured as a hobby. The key is to work together to learn the rhythm. "Once we do, we all blend in and you'd never know the difference," she said.
ASL is the foundation of the Gallaudet Dance Company. Founded in 1955, it uses visual counting and hours of practice to help dancers develop an inner sense of timing. When teaching a new step, the director gives a sign count, similar to giving a verbal count with hearing dancers.
Occasionally, a drum beat is used; dancers also closely watch fellow dancers who may have better residual hearing.
"The dancers internalize the music just as a drummer does," said Diane Hottendorf, director of the 15-girl troupe. "On the road once, we actually had the music stop, and the dancers came back — right on count — which a hearing person would not have been able to do."
According to Peter Pover, president of USA Dance, "The only impediment to dance is when we don't think we can do it."
He competed in amateur ballroom competitions for years — even against two successful dancers who were hearing impaired.
"My wife is in her late 70s and is almost completely deaf, and she manages to dance fairly well," Pover said. "It's all about moving one tiny little point between their mutual solar plexus. The movement of one person draws the other and it doesn't matter if it's a man or a woman."
Interest in learning dance spiked 30 percent last year because of "Dancing With the Stars," according to Pover. "When we negotiate for a hotel to run our national championships, they look at us differently. We get a big audience now."
Many in the deaf world say Matlin's dancing might change how people view deafness, which they say is a strong, unique culture — not a disability.
"The issue is not so much that we are deaf dancers, but that we are dancers just like any other dancer," said Sheridan. "Dance is a talent that some people have, just like baseball is a talent to others."
"When you have talent you want to use it, and express yourself through it," she said. "When you do, it enriches your life, and it becomes a part of who you are, but it also connects us to and enriches the lives of others."